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Cover image for Stop asking questions throughout your presentation.

Stop asking questions throughout your presentation.

sumeetjain profile image Sumeet Jain (he/him) Originally published at linkedin.com ・3 min read

Presentation slide with the abbreviation OKR shown.

A presenter might ask the room, "Does anyone know what this abbreviation stands for?"

A common mistake that people giving presentations make is asking easy questions with obvious answers every few slides. The presenter's understandable (but misguided) intent is to keep the audience engaged. Perhaps counterintuitively, these easy questions do the opposite of boosting engagement.

When someone asks a question like, "Does anyone know what this abbreviation stands for?", they're breaking important focus, taking their audience out of the zone, and doing so for the meaningless reward of superficial audience engagement.

Why do obvious questions break audience focus?

To understand why these questions are a problem, consider for a moment what the audience would be doing if the presenter didn't ask a question here:

  • Listening and building a mental model to represent the ideas they're seeing and hearing.
  • Relating the concepts being presented to other ideas they're already familiar with.
  • Evaluating what's being presented to decide if they agree or not.

Once the presenter asks, "Does anyone know what this abbreviation stands for?", what is the audience doing instead? They're accessing their knowledge store of trivial information, surveying the room to see if anyone else is going to raise their hand first, and wondering if the risk of being wrong is worth the reward of speaking up.

What they're not doing is thinking critically about the material, which means they're not engaged.

There's a better way.

So what should a presenter to do instead? Well, let's back into the tactics by thinking of the goal first: If you're presenting, your goal is to deliver the content, spark critical thinking, and foster engaging discussion. You're probably hoping there's some healthy debate and the sharing of meaningful experiences to add color to the presentation's subjects.

In order to achieve these goals, your audience needs to feel a connection to the content.

Give them some uninterrupted time to process what you're presenting, to add it to their mental model. Importantly, this doesn't mean you need to stop talking. People can process quite a lot while they're listening.

Put yourself in an audience member's shoes: When you watch a good presentation, you enter a zone where the speaker's voice is a pleasing background track in your mind. And the slide being shown is a good place to rest your eyes and keep your mind from wandering. This can be an ideal state for getting lost in intense thought. It's wonderful. (And the sporadic, obvious questions just take people out of this zone.)

So keep a medium pace when you present. Know the content well enough to get through its exposition without unnecessary breaks. Anticipate the mental models you want your audience to be building, and pause to stoke the flame of conversation when your presentation arrives at a genuine punctuation point in that building process.

At that time, ask a deeper question to facilitate a more substantive conversation. Focus a lens on the nuances and conflicts surrounding the ideas you've presented, and encourage the audience to give their takes.

Preparing for greatness

To host such conversations, you need to prepare in advance. A good question to ask yourself as you're creating the presentation is, "What are the first objections or additions experts would make about this concept?" These are the deeper ideas you should be addressing. Your presentation should aim to equip the audience with enough context for them to engage on those deeper ideas.

The burden is on presenters to go beyond the first level of understanding on an issue. If you put in the work, you'll build a reputation as a speaker that begins with basic subjects but says something new about them. Nothing is quite so captivating to an audience member as learning something new about a subject they thought they'd already mastered.

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Discussion

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Totally agree.

I also find audience participation – like having us stand up and stretch, say hello to the people around us, meditate, or with a show of hands disclose personal info we may not want to disclose very annoying.

 

Hmm, maybe my problem is that I can’t stand presentations that aren’t at least in a simulated conversational style? I always go to the talks with multiple presenters and promises of war stories.

That being said, I agree with the “no questions” guideline. I’ve gone over some of my favorite speakers (Rich Hickey, Brian Cantrell) and you’re right. They don't really ask questions at all. When they do, the pause and continuation are built into their patter. If the audience mumbles a response, then they say “yeah, it’s XYZ!” (Or rarely, take a moment to spotlight a really wacky answer). If the audience doesn’t, they just say “It’s XYZ!” without being condescending.

 

Insightful read. For me, I don’t like when presenters speak through slides, w/o giving a moment to read it. Because either way I think I’m losing valuable information.

 

If you need to be given time to read a slide, then there's probably too much information on the slide anyway. You're supposed to keep information on a slide minimal to prevent the exact situation you're describing.

Most of the info is supposed to come from the speaker and not from the presentation. The presentation should support the speaker, not the other way around.

 
 

Nice! I wonder how you thought of this? It seems so trivial, like common sense. But, I bet "don't ask questions" never occurred to most of us.

💯 💯 💯

 

For me, the appeal of asking questions is to wake up the audience / add some variety rather than encourage active comprehension. It's typically more of a "show of hands" to get the blood running type of question for me, though, and usually after introducing myself and the high level topic.